Flying 1,400ft above gridlocked streets, a helicopter speeds its passengers from airport to downtown heliport in minutes, delivering that ultimate luxury for the overworked executive or high-net-worth individual – productive time. With ground journey times taking longer than ever in many cities, urban rotor-taxis are becoming a more familiar sight from London to São Paulo, and Manhattan to Mexico City.

Several new business concepts have taken to the skies in the past few years. To their supporters they have the potential to disrupt corporate flying in the way same Uber has shaken up how we journey by cab and succeeding where would-be mould-breakers such as Florida's DayJet failed with fixed-wing air taxis in the previous decade.

Airbus Helicopters has been a major innovator, investing in two fledgling on-demand helicopter booking platforms – Voom in Brazil and Blade in New York. Neither of these companies operates its own aircraft. Rather, they provide – Uber-style – the means for the public to book rides with approved independent operators, providing a payment mechanism, marketing, a brand and much of the ground infrastructure.

Airbus-owned Voom is a Silicon Valley start-up – part of the European aerospace company's strategy of incubating projects developing "new urban mobility solutions for commuters". Voom chose Mexico City and São Paulo to launch because both cities suffer from chronic traffic congestion, and the authorities and public welcome helicopter services.

Airbus's motive in investing in businesses like Voom and Blade is not simply to sell more of its current range of helicopters. The manufacturer sees a new generation of electric-powered, vertical take-off aircraft, currently under development, as being crucial to transforming urban travel by driving down costs and environmental impact.

"By 2030, five billion people will live in the world's biggest cities, and the ground transport infrastructure cannot keep up," says Voom chief executive Uma Subramanian. "This is a bet Airbus is making – to convince more people to fly in single-engined aircraft, and to create a market in anticipation of this in some of our most crowded cities."

PROOF OF CONCEPT

Voom works with local Part 135 charter operators, flying out of eight heliports and two airports in Brazil's biggest conurbation. In the Mexican capital, it uses three helipads and both the city's airports. Since launching in March and April 2017, Voom has flown "well over 5,000 passengers on dozens of journeys each day", says Subramanian, with typical users "technology early adopters" and "people in a rush".

That time factor is crucial. In São Paulo, in particular, a journey from the main airport to the city centre can last anything from 90min to 4h, she says. By helicopter, it takes 12min. In Mexico City, the fact that business and high-end residential districts spread over many dozens of square kilometres, with poor road connections, means helicopters can be crucial to the efficient running of a business.

What helps is that both cities are friendly to rotorcraft. With its traffic jams and creaking public transport system, São Paulo, says Subramanian, is the "perfect place" for an operation such as Voom's. There are 700 civil helicopters in service and 200 operational heliports in the city centre, many of them on the roofs of buildings. There is also a dedicated air traffic control for helicopters.

In São Paulo, the price for a flight in a single-engined helicopter from airport to city centre is around $150, compared with $50 for a taxi. Customers book on a web site, from 60min to seven days before they want to fly – an app will launch in October. It is helping to create a new market. Some 85% of all Voom's first-time passengers have never flown on a helicopter before, says Subramanian.

Although an Airbus subsidiary, Voom flies Robinson and Bell single-engined helicopters, as well as Airbus types. "Airbus realised that we needed to build a market, so had to be platform agnostic," she says. There are no customer perception issues with using single-pilot, single-engined models, she adds, although, because of Mexico City's altitude and thinner air, twins often have to be employed.

Voom is now looking at taking the service to Jakarta and Manila, and eventually to other major cities in Latin America, with the aim of operating in 25 metropolitan areas within five years. The USA and Europe will be harder to crack, because of "not in my back yard" environmental issues, she says, and regulations in Europe requiring pricier, twin-engined helicopters for charter operations.

CUTTING EDGE

Blade was already established in New York when it signed a strategic partnership with Airbus Helicopters in February. Launched in 2014, it specialised initially in the high-end leisure market, including flights to the resorts of the northeast seaboard, but has branched out to serve Miami and Los Angeles. Founder and chief executive Rob Wiesenthal says no helicopter provider in the USA "moves more people".

Partnering with around 27 operators, each with a fleet of between five and 10 helicopters, Blade has been moving more into the airport-to-downtown market – and this now represents around 40% of its journeys. One of the business's unique features, it says, is its network of branded, hosted lounges at heliports in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Miami, and Nantucket.

Another is speed of response. "We guarantee a helicopter within 20min in our major markets," says Wiesenthal. This means that customers can book a ride as they make their approach to an airport by jet. "You get off the airplane, straight into the helicopter, and it's an 8min flight to the terminal," he says. "By Uber it would be 90min to 2h, depending on traffic."

Wiesenthal says Blade will use the investment from Airbus to launch in Dallas next year. The company is also in discussions with airlines using New York Kennedy airport about launching programmes to offer passengers helicopter shuttles to Manhattan, after piloting a service with Delta Air Lines in 2017.

In the UK, London Biggin Hill has linked with another New York-based helicopter operator, Associated Aircraft Group, to offer helicopter shuttle services to its business jet customers who are travelling to the Big Apple. The operation mirrors a similar service Biggin Hill offers with Castle Air in London, providing, says the private airport, an almost office-to-office "air bridge" between the two cities.

Branded as the New York Heli Shuttle, AAG flies 6min shuttles between Teterboro and Manhattan's East 34th Street heliport, three or four times a day, using its 12-strong fleet of mostly managed Sikorsky S-76s. Customers of both airports are offered the helicopter flights under what Biggin Hill calls a "joint marketing agreement".

The 29-year-old company, owned by Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky, traditionally served the "Hampton run" market, taking affluent New Yorkers to their weekend seaside residences on Long Island. However, in recent years it has seen "pretty extensive growth in airport transfers", as private jet passengers look to save commuting time, says director, sales and business development Sean Redfern.

"Leaving your office or apartment in Park Avenue to travel to Teterboro takes time," he says. "If there’s anything New York has, it's really bad infrastructure and your journey can take two hours. Instead, you take a cab to the midtown heliport where the helicopter already has its engines running. Within three or four minutes you are airborne."

Redfern admits preconceptions about using helicopters can "be a significant hurdle to sales growth", so the company makes much play about its safety standards. "The S-76 is a twin turbojet, with pop-out floats," he says. "We have very high hiring standards for our pilots, and we have weather ceiling minimums. We are always prepared to say no if the weather conditions are not right."

In London, Biggin Hill has been running the London Heli Shuttle, partnering with its tenant Castle Air – a Leonardo Helicopters sales and service agent with access to an owned and managed fleet of 18 helicopters – for two years. Over that time, the company has operated around 2,500 shuttles, flying up to eight times a day to the Battersea heliport.

Biggin Hill business development director Robert Walters says the shuttle "has been a game-changer at our airport, allowing passengers a 6min transfer to the city centre". It is especially popular with transatlantic clients, allowing them to land as early as 06:30, and be at their destination in time for a breakfast meeting. "The point is to sell Biggin Hill as a gateway to London," he says.

Other London area business airports, including Oxford and Southend – both situated around 90min drive from central London – offer helicopter shuttles to the city centre. Oxford says its co-ownership with the heliport at Battersea – the Rueben Brothers real estate investment firm controls both – makes it easier to market its 22min service to airport clients.

"When we bought London heliport in 2012, it fundamentally changed what we could offer," says James Dillon-Godfray, Oxford’s head of business development. Two airport-based operators, Capital Air Services and Fresh Air, provide the services. "We are seeing more people interlining with helicopters these days, whether travelling to London or to their houses, where they land in the back garden," he says.

The heliport, across the Thames from the upmarket residential areas of Chelsea, Mayfair, and Kensington, is London's major hub for helicopter operations, handling 11,900 movements in 2017 – close to its 12,000 authorisation. Ten years ago, about one-tenth of all its flights interlined with a business jet. Now, says the heliport, that figure is closer to one-quarter.

Airbus's vision of dozens of so-called eVTOL aircraft offering cheap and rapid congestion-beating flights to urban travellers in every major city may be some years off, however. Public opinion and the regulators may be as much of a hurdle to overcome as the technology.

Nevertheless, another change appears to be taking place. Commercial rotorcraft - for whom the VIP leisure market has long been a core market – are increasingly being accepted as a key time-saving tool for business travellers, particularly those travelling between airports and city centres. The promised air taxi revolution of the early 2000s might finally be about to happen – only this time with helicopters rather than Eclipse 500s.

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Source: Flight Daily News

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